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Patient Perseverance
9th February 2022 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:12:18

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For example, every day you could commit to walking for thirty minutes. You’re not committing to running a marathon or losing fifty pounds. All you have to focus on each day is walking thirty minutes, that’s it. You may certainly build up to the marathon or gradually lose all that weight, but that’s not what you focus on each day, each moment. Just take a baby step each day, then repeat it the next day. Biting off more than you can chew only means you give up sooner!

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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Doing all the above means nothing if you only keep it up for an afternoon and then wonder why your life is not magically transformed. Abandon the need for quick fixes and overnight success. There are no hacks or cheat codes (in fact, things that seem that way often cost more in the long run).

Instead, ask yourself regularly, “What’s the smallest, sustainable change I can make?” Not the biggest quantum leap, not the grandest plan. But the action you can comfortably repeat day after day, month after month.

Think in terms of habits and behavioral change rather than flashy one-off achievements. Focus on process and not outcome.

For example, every day you could commit to walking for thirty minutes. You’re not committing to running a marathon or losing fifty pounds. All you have to focus on each day is walking thirty minutes, that’s it. You may certainly build up to the marathon or gradually lose all that weight, but that’s not what you focus on each day, each moment. Just take a baby step each day, then repeat it the next day. Biting off more than you can chew only means you give up sooner!

If your motivation is really flagging, it’s fine to take a break. But make it productive. Ask yourself if your goals and approach are really working, see if you can make any adjustments, and give yourself a fixed time to get back on the horse.

Seeing Work as Play

Watch your language! Don’t say, “I have to do XYZ,” but instead say, “I choose to do XYZ.” In fact, don’t call it work at all, if you can. You’re learning, creating, growing. If possible, use certain gamification strategies to bring more fun and spontaneity into your “work.”

Work outside for the afternoon or try a completely different approach. Experiment, play, and see what happens. Remember, nobody is forcing you to be self-disciplined. Rather, it’s something you are deliberately pursuing because part of you already knows that, ultimately, life feels far more meaningful that way.

Rock-Solid Principles for Lasting Motivation and Self-Discipline

There is no ideal time to start.

“Great,” you think, “this all sounds like a good idea. I’ll give it a go sometime.”

So many hopes and dreams die in that strange no-man’s land called “someday.” How many of us waste time and energy because we believe in holding out for some better moment to start somewhere far off in the future?

The status quo is comfortable, familiar, and already full in swing. It takes effort and discomfort to break that momentum. When you start telling yourself all the reasons why you can’t begin yet? That’s just plain old resistance. The right moment never actually comes, and in waiting for it, you delay starting indefinitely.

You might think that it makes more sense to wait until things would be easier. You can’t begin writing your novel just yet because work is chaotic and will die down next month. Or you’ll start applying for jobs soon but wait till the weekend when you have the time. Or worse, you’ll just wait for things to improve in a general sort of way . . .

But the outcome is obvious—later down the line, there is some other reason preventing you from taking action, and so on forever.

The only wait forward is to act. Act even if you’re unsure, even if you don’t feel prepared (hint: you never will), and even if you’re a bit scared. The whole point of taking a big step out your comfort zone is that it’s unfamiliar and a little scary. Wait for it to not be scary and you’ll be waiting a long, long time.

But go easy on yourself; you don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to do it perfectly. You don’t even have to like it as you do it! You just have to do it. In that sense, there’s a lot less pressure on you than you maybe thought. Just take one small action in the right direction, and do not allow yourself to wriggle out of it.

Waiting for the ideal moment is a trick of the perfectionist mind. It speaks to an intolerance for being in process, for doing things inelegantly, or making mistakes. Think of it this way, though—the first stages of any endeavor often are embarrassing, difficult, slow, awkward or a little unpleasant. Why put all that off, when you could start now and get it over and done with? That brings us to:

Baby Steps, Not Quantum Leaps

Yes, you want to have a full vision of the end point. You need to know the goal you’re striving for and hold it in your mind. But in the day to day, you can actually forget about all the grand plans and big ideas. That’s because even the grandest plan is small, when seen on the day-to-day level. Think of Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel—some days he would have spent just working on a tiny, unimpressive square inch, only to erase it again later.

You need to zoom out and have big vision, but you also need to zoom in and focus on all the tiny, countless steps that carry you bit by bit toward that big vision. If you only see the big vision all the time, you might feel completely overwhelmed with the daily tasks. How demotivating to see how much there is to still do! But if you dwell on this too long, you don’t even begin.

When you pace yourself with small, achievable tasks that are done regularly and consistently, you build habits, which then work on their own, without the constant injection of willpower. What’s more, you don’t get discouraged, because every day you are not tasked with making a huge transformation—you just have to clear what’s on your plate and start again fresh tomorrow.

Taking baby steps keeps you psychologically motivated and with good forward momentum, so you don’t stall and give your old habits a chance to settle in again. Even if you only advance the tiniest bit, you still advance. Multiply that over a month or a year, and it quickly adds up.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, just stop, take a breath, and break things down into smaller chunks. Do one chunk. Just one. If it still seems insurmountable, break it down further. If you’re massively procrastinating on doing a project, tell yourself you don’t have to do anything more than a minute of it, right now. Don’t think about it, just start. Tell yourself you can stop after one minute. The thing is, when you get to the end of the minute, you have another choice: can you do one more minute? Maybe you can’t. But chances are, you can. Somehow, it’s easier to do sixty small increments this way rather than forcing yourself to sit down for a full hour. In practice, momentum takes over after a while and you find the resistance drops away. But you have to take that first step.

Flex Your Intrinsic Motivation, Not Your Extrinsic

Here’s the difference. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside, i.e. from rewards or punishments that come from others or the environment, while intrinsic motivation comes from within you, i.e. from your own motivation, passion, or commitment. So, if a child does their homework because they enjoy the material and like the satisfaction of mastering the task, that’s intrinsic motivation. It’s also intrinsic motivation if they feel fundamentally unworthy and are trying to prove to themselves that they can do it.

But if the child does it because they’ll get in trouble with the teacher if they don’t, or because they like the praise they receive from their parents when they do, this is extrinsic motivation. In life, people are motivated to do things for a mix of complex reasons, some of them not understandable, even to them. But on the whole, when it comes to self-discipline and motivated life, you need to aim for intrinsic motivation.

But let’s be honest, being driven by greed, fear, peer pressure, and so on will get you somewhere, at least initially. Employees do work under the threat of being fired if they don’t, and much good has been accomplished in the world even if for all the wrong reasons!

How can we apply this knowledge?

There is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivators, but they are seldom enough on their own, and the effect they produce is rarely sustained. Extrinsic motivation is great to use for tasks you simply cannot muster sincere motivation for, like brushing your teeth daily or clearing your gutters in winter. You don’t need to be passionate about either of these tasks, you just need to do them, and if fear of what happens if you don’t is all that motivates you, so be it.

But for more important areas of life, intrinsic motivation is more appropriate. You need to be connected to your values, to your big WHY, and if you aren’t, chances are you’re working with external motivation. Periodically ask yourself, “What’s driving me right now?” Intrinsic or extrinsic motivators can be either positive or negative, or a blend. But you need to understand what is powering your action and take control. This requires honesty and self-awareness. Ask yourself:

• Would I continue to do this if I wasn’t paid or nobody noticed/cared?

• Do I find value in this activity itself, or am I just doing it to get to the end result?

• Am I acting out of fear, insecurity, self-doubt, or a desire for approval?

• What are my goals and values, and are these mine or did I borrow them from someone else?